ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A man who accosted U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin on stage as the Republican campaigned for governor will remain in custody while a federal judge considers his lawyer’s plea to release the Army veteran, who he said was in an alcoholic relapse.
David Jakubonis, 43, faces a federal count of assaulting a member of Congress with a dangerous weapon for the attack July 21 in the Rochester area. The charge carries a potential maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
At a detention hearing Thursday, assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Eldridge argued Jakubonis should be held as a danger to the community who lunged at a congressman with a dangerous weapon.
“To characterize what happened to Congressman Zeldin that day as a close call is an understatement,” Eldridge said.
A video of the attack shows Jakubonis raised his arm toward the congressman from Long Island as he held a keychain with two sharp points.
“You’re done,” Jakubonis said four times as he approached Zeldin.
Zeldin grabbed Jakubonis’ wrist and the two tussled to the ground as others jumped in to help. Zeldin suffered a minor scrape.
Defense attorney Steven Slawinski said Jakubonis was only reaching for Zeldin’s microphone to stop him from talking, under the mistaken belief Zeldin was disrespecting veterans. He blamed the episode on a relapse triggered by a breakup with a girlfriend.
“Mr. Jakubonis, if he is drinking, does have a problem holding his liquor,” the lawyer said, adding that Jakubonis also has been prescribed psychiatric medication that can interact poorly with alcohol.
Slawinski sought either probation with strict conditions or inpatient care. Jakubonis, he said, was an admitted alcoholic who sought treatment throughout his adult life. He developed severe anxiety and panic attacks while serving a year in Iraq, the lawyer said, and his mental health declined further after he witnessed the sudden death of his wife of seven years from a cerebral hemorrhage three years ago.
“That would send anyone into a sprial,” Slawinski told the court.
After his wife’s death, Jakubonis relinquished custody of his children to his brother and sister-in-law. Slawinski said Jakubonis has not seen his children since because it is too painful to see them call anyone else mom and dad.
Judge Marian Payson said she would make a detention decision after considering whether Jakubonis’ actions last week were “aberrant” behavior and whether there is enough support in place if he is released from jail. She said she wanted to review Jakubonis’ mental health history.
The judge also asked prosecutors to send her a photo of the object — which Eldridge called a “cat dagger” — and its dimensions, noting that Jakubonis was released after his initial arrest on a state charge. She asked whether opinions differed on whether the plastic object was considered “a dangerous weapon.”
“It is not designed to be a decoration. It’s designed to be a weapon,” Eldridge said. “The points are very pointy and the material is hard enough that it could puncture the skin.”
The federal criminal complaint filed Saturday said Jakubonis “did not know who the speaker was or that the speaker was a political person.” It said that when Jakubonis watched video of the incident he told investigators he “must have checked out” and that what was depicted in the video was disgusting.
Jakubonis was arraigned Friday on a separate state charge of attempted assault in the second degree and was released by a local judge.
He has two prior misdemeanor DWI convictions from 2006 and 2019. His two-year probation on the 2019 count expired in December 2021.
A big part of Zeldin’s campaign message has been a promise to get tougher on criminals. Almost immediately after the on-stage altercation with Jakubonis, he sought to link a New York bail reform law passed by Democrats to his own case.
The law requires judges to free most people accused of lesser crimes while they await trial. It limits the instances when judges can require a defendant to pay money to gain their freedom, a system that favored wealthier people.
When he was initially arrested, a Monroe County sheriff’s investigator charged Jakubonis with second-degree attempted assault, a crime not serious enough to warrant his jailing or the imposition of bail.
Afterward, Zeldin tweeted that his assailant’s release was “due to New York’s insane cashless bail law.”
Democrats pointed out that if prosecutors had wanted to give a judge discretion to jail Jakubonis, Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley — a Republican who is listed as being a co-chair of Zeldin’s campaign — could have simply picked a more serious charge.
Even prior to the bail reform law, a charge of second-degree attempted assault might have been unlikely to lead to a judge setting a high bail that might have kept Jakubonis for more than a night.
Payson did not say when she would rule on the government’s request for detention. A status hearing is scheduled for Aug. 24.